Half a trillion dollars of government debt is a new record and according to last month’s budget papers, government debt is set to hit $725 billion in the mid-2020s. Government debt was ‘just’ $273 billion at the time of the September 2013 election when the Coalition promised to return the budget to surplus and ‘pay off’ debt. It has failed in this policy.
What is concerning is that the $725 billion debt forecast assumes the budget moves to surplus by 2020-21 and stays there after that, which is a scenario that just about everyone other than Treasury judges to be unlikely For now, the government is having no financial management problems raising debt. Australia’s triple-A credit rating is safe for now, which ensures fund managers and others are willing to finance the ever growing levels of debt at the current level of interest rates.
And while a credit crunch where investors shun Australian government debt is unlikely to show up any time soon, if the level of debt rises at a significantly faster pace than currently forecast and there is a credit rating downgrade or two, investors will be less willing to lend to the government at current interest rates.
In other words, an unexpected debt blow out from already elevated levels because of a slump in housing or protracted weakness in commodity prices or some other issue would not only see debt rising more quickly, but interest costs escalate. At the same time, the Australian dollar would almost certainly fall, and by a large amount, which would push import prices and inflation higher, which in turn would erode living standards.
While the half trillion dollars of government debt is not yet a problem, a point could soon emerge where the government will need to take action to address the debt escalation. It appears that economic growth is not enough to fix the budget and control the debt level.
This means that tax hikes and / or spending cuts will be needed in the not too distant future. This might be best achieved when, one day, the economy is stronger.